23 Nov 2023

New ERC Grant to CMI

CMI researcher Edyta Roszko has been awarded her second ERC Grant for 'Global Hydroconnectivities beyond Oceans, Seas, and Rivers’, a project that breaks down the walls between the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.

For thousands of years people have settled on remote islands lacking perennial surface water, such as lakes, rivers or streams. So where did they get water from? They relied for survival on freshwater that surfaces from underground aquifers where land meets sea. In ‘Global Hydroconnectivities beyond Oceans, Seas, and Rivers’ Roszko studies how aquifers – underground layers of permeable rock that contain fresh water - have been crucial for seafarers in the Indo-Pacific region, and how indigenous knowledge that secured continued access to these fresh water sources has made mobility and large-scale migration and trade possible even in times of changing sea levels.

This is a project looking towards the future just as much as it is looking back in time. Indigenous knowledge accumulated over time has been passed down through generations and travelled between different groups of people. However, it didn’t simply evolve over time but arose as a necessity, an outcome of mid-Holocene climatic and sea level changes. Today, when the sea level rises, this knowledge can help tackling groundwater depletion and build more sustainable water policies.

-Indigenous communities are very much collaborators in this project. We rely on them for knowledge that can bring policy relevant information to the fore. Last year, the United Nations published its annual report that focused on groundwater, and on the need to make the ‘invisible’ aspects of water visible. Many of these tropical islands are on the verge of annihilation due to rising sea levels. If they disappear, we lose more than land. These are also rich cultural, linguistic and material worlds at risk of being lost forever, says Roszko.

She takes an innovative approach to the study of how water shapes and has shaped mobility and connections over time, looking beyond the opportunities that navigable waters like oceans, rivers and seas have provided to seafarers throughout history. In ‘Global Hydroconnectivities beyond Oceans, Seas, and Rivers’, Roszko focuses on non-navigable waters and how they bring land, islands and oceans together – creating hydroconnectivities.

Despite the focus on water, Roszko stresses that people are the agents in this project, not the water itself.

-We ask how it was possible to make a living on small islands without perennial sources of water, and what kind of skills were needed to make it happen.

The aquifers are crucial for the hydroconnectivities Roszko explores. Ancient seafarers were able to turn them into easily accessible freshwater sources by building wells in which the underground water seeped through and could be collected. This constant access to fresh water made sea travel easier as seafarers did not have to travel too far to get to the next freshwater source. These travellers and their freshwater wells laid the foundations for large-scale migratory routes in the Indo-Pacific region and also towards Eastern Africa.

This is Edyta Roszko’s second ERC Grant. Her first project, in which she studies the South China Sea as a contested maritime battleground, is now in its final stages.  She thinks that both the theoretical advancement building on previous research and the fact that she addresses a topic that is among the most essential and urgent of our current lifetimes have been the deciding factor in the new allocation.

-The ‘oceanic turn’ - the notion that oceans are an important space of history and in the making of history – has been a very new direction in humanities and social sciences, and this novelty probably explains why I got my first ERC Starting Grant. However, my new grant is different from existing anthropological or historical studies that privilege navigable seas, oceans and rivers as hydrological scapes connecting people and territories. It offers groundbreaking focus on coastal underground freshwater seeps, allowing to draw on and mix data from very different sources, including land, islands, and seas, says Roszko.

The idea for the project resided with her for a few years and she was doing her reading on the subject.

-While I was driven by curiosity, I wrote this project application to deal with my sorrow and grief of losing my husband. This project feels very personal to me because it allows me to rise above pain and sorrow and provides me with a mental escape and hope for the future I can look forward to.